“HEMA,” Elitism, and all That

In a response to some of the comments on a video by another Youtuber, Matt Easton (Schola Gladitoria) shared some important insights about what HEMA is, and whether or not it is beset by deep elitism, gate-keeping, etc. [1] Much of what he has to say I’ve touched on here before, and Matt’s presentation is more eloquent than mine would be, so it’s best to watch his video for yourself. Here is the link:

However, there is one thing Matt left out that I’d like to address, again, because it can’t be stressed enough, and that is quality of interpretation. What makes HEMA unique is the “H,” the history part. Few people involved in historical fencing lack at least some interest in history, but very few actually have the skills to do it properly when it comes to the research aspect.

To quote Matt, one doesn’t need to do that research–one can learn from someone who has, or from someone who learned from someone who has. Most people, in my experience, fall into that category, and like Matt I think it’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. As I remind myself when people decide to skip class the fact is that most of the adults who work with me are busy people, with families, jobs, other hobbies, and they do this stuff for fun, the same way they might go camping, or run, or see friends for game night. The amount of time I spend on the Art is not the norm.

Where I see the real problem is in the hubris too many in “HEMA” display in believing that cracking a book and offering up an interpretation is as easy as a fourth grade book report. It’s not. Call it gate-keeping if you will, by my history PhD says you’re wrong, and unless you have the same training and can make a better case, it might be worth considering that promoting and defending daft theories not only makes one a fool, but also may potentially mislead people. If that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, perhaps a few analogies will help.

I like science. I read about it, I watch documentaries, and what little news I still follow is mostly science and/or history, art, or archaeology oriented. My spouse was a research scientist, and her family on both sides worked for or works for NASA. As a student I took classes in biology, botany, physics, chemistry, and geology. Despite this interest, you will not see me attempting to write articles on particle physics, Fermat’s theorem, or the latest work in RNA vaccine production. I am not qualified to do so. Even with a bachelor’s of science it would be inappropriate, even dangerous for me to try to speak on a professional level about these things. Outside a book club or circle of fellow-enthusiasts I have no business whatsoever making pronouncements about the latest black hole research. I don’t feel less a person for not having any works listed in PubMed.

One of the most interesting books I ever read was on 18th century medicine. It covered everything from vestigial ideas about the “humors” to surgery, and the illustrations–especially for amputation tools–were as chilling as they were morbidly fascinating. I’ve been to see a doctor countless times, been put under twice so far, had stitches, bones set, and I know a fair number of doctors. I’ve seen them portrayed on t.v., I’ve taken first-aid classes, and having health-care professionals in the family I hear a lot, A LOT, about trends in medicine. Much as I’ve learned, this is another subject that I will not be writing about or teaching, and I certainly won’t be submitting anything to Lancet or offering to perform that triple by-pass for your uncle. I’m not qualified to do any of those things. I know better than to try, and not just because of the jail-time I’d likely face; it would be irresponsible of me to play surgeon or dentist when I’m not one.

In the past, when I’ve made these types of analogies one of the first responses I get is “but those are important–they affect lives or wallets.” True. But, history is no less important, and getting it right is too. Without proper history and professional historians we can get important things wrong. Even now, and outside “HEMA,” we see this–there are the cretins who deny the Holocaust, despite ALL the evidence, and worse, attribute that evidence to some world-wide conspiracy. There are the sad cases that buy the “ancient aliens” bullshit that has made the shareholders of the “History Channel” wealthy. There are people who continue to argue that the Confederacy wasn’t about preserving slavery, but “culture” or “heritage,” ignoring the fact that this “culture” only existed because of slavery and that the “heritage” they celebrate is a slap in the face to citizens of our country whose ancestors were enslaved (and who continue to suffer discrimination).

It’s fair to say that interpreting historical fencing manuals is not on par with cases as severe and important as Holocaust denial. However, there are dangers to poor theories on the Art. On the one hand some interpretations might get one injured. [2] On the other hand, there is a danger in perpetuating the widespread crisis that is ignoring reason and handling evidence responsibly. It takes training to analyze and make sense of evidence effectively and responsibly, and like it or not some people have more of that training than others. That’s not gatekeeping, no more than telling your plumber that he’s not a neurosurgeon or your lawyer that they have no business discussing ethics.

If this sounds angry and disappointed–two things I’ve been accused of for daring to call out the poseurs playing historian–well, it is. Being angry about something doesn’t automatically make one wrong. It’s insulting to those of us who spent years learning to read, analyze, and communicate research to have untrained people attempt to shame us for it and call that training into question. They have no right to do so, and the only shame belongs to them.

Notes:

[1] The video in question was shared by “Skallagrim,” cf. https://youtu.be/DauXo_Hg7l0

I don’t follow this chap, but he’s well-known in HEMA circles.

[2] In the past year, to name one example, one theorist shared video that defies all reason, not just in what it depicts, but in the fact that he shared it as supposed proof for his theory. Does he not see how bad this is to anyone who actually knows anything about fencing?

The section of “HEMA” that buys into this b.s. has been remarkably silent about it–either they now see the b.s. for what it is and shame-faced haven’t recanted, or, they don’t see the problem and think it’s great. I’m not sure which is worse. Just as they don’t care for professional researchers who don’t agree with them, they also care nothing for long-established agreement on the fundamentals of fencing. One example should suffice to illustrate the problem: in the video, Fencer A steps into critical distance (close enough to be hit) without presenting a threat or covering himself; he is then clobbered, and after being hit finally reacts. Amazing and sad. The guy literally steps into be hit before doing anything… and this is a crowd that swallows the equally daft heavy-hitting is manly garbage. Not safe.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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